A Homs Diary – By Big Al Brand
After months of government attacks on peaceful demonstrations, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was created to defend Syrian civilians who are demanding freedom and democracy. More soldiers and officers have been defecting from the Syrian army, but still don’t have access to sufficient funding or weapons to inflict serious losses on the regime.
In the meantime, civilians like me are still being held in our houses, in areas surrounded by checkpoints and security forces, unable to protest, work, or live decent lives. Since late 2011 Homs has been on the receiving end of significant shelling and air assaults by government forces which are attempting to force rebels from the city. Below is my account of life in an unnamed district in Homs in late 2012.
November 20 2012:
A strange sound woke me up, not the usual shelling or shooting. I stayed in my bed like I always do when I hear any sound, old or new.
My bedroom door opened up, a couple of armed security forces barged in dressed in their usual uniforms, pointing a rifle at my face and telling me to get up, get my ID, and go with them.
I didn’t ask where they were taking me. I didn’t say a word. I simply got up and walked with them. There was nothing else I could do.
There were at least ten of them inside my house, spread into different rooms. They turned the lights on and looked around.
As I was walking out past my apartment door I noticed how it was broken, and then I saw our neighbors’ door open as well. Other security forces were there, and that made me realise that they didn’t come especially for me. What a relief, since I’ve imagined that they will come drag me this way so many times before, but they were always looking for me specifically in my dreams.
One of them stayed with me and led me out of the building.
It was cold outside but it wasn’t dark anymore. I walked in front of him and saw other civilians like myself being led the same way I was.
I counted the vehicles on my way to wherever he was taking me, and there were at least six. Two long dark green ones, two short green ones, one white pickup truck, and the famous “Assad’s Syria” vehicle.
We arrived to their officer, the one they called “Sir”, and he was the worst looking one of them all.
They all had beards and were talking with the coastal, predominantly Alawite accent.
They took my ID and sent me with a couple of other civilians also in their pyjamas to another street.
On our way I saw them cuffing a guy and dragging him into one of the long dark green vehicles.
I heard shouting from a nearby building, a women’s voice.
I’ve never felt so weak and ashamed in my entire life.
They checked my ID and kept me waiting for a while, and started asking me questions. The same questions I’d been asked a hundred times before: what do you do for a living? Where do you work? Where did you used to work? And so on. Then they told me to go straight home and talk to no one on my way.
I walked home, and saw my parents. They weren’t as scared as I thought they might be. Perhaps we all died a bit inside over the past 21 months.
We sat down, talked, and I told them that they shouldn’t be afraid since I’m always careful. Yes, I lied.
It was 6:25 AM. I had a shooting pain in my gut. Maybe it was the cold weather, or maybe it was fear. I couldn’t tell for sure. I was calm like I always am in such situations, and I considered myself lucky since they didn’t even beat me up this time, unlike as was likely to happen to those who were taken away that day. God be with them and their families.
I then examined the door. It was kicked open. The footprint was clear, and I took a couple of photos to document this “Breaking and entering” which the Syrian “new constitution” forbids.
Old constitution/new constitution, what a joke. We never had a constitution or law. Those people can do whatever they want, and no one can do anything about it. Isn’t that why we went out and shouted “FREEDOM”?
After a cup of tea, and a couple of bathroom breaks, I finally rested from what I’d been through.
I looked out my window and saw the vehicles leave my street at around 8. Looks like I made it, once again.
Later that day I decided I deserved a new treat, and that’s why I baked my very first banana bread ever! The result was a bit of a letdown but I ate it anyway.
At night I heard sounds and cheers, and saw mothers and brothers in the streets welcoming most of those who were taken away that morning. Only a couple of young men weren’t released.
A person is never the same after a trip to any security centre in Syria. You can ask anyone who’s been arrested before. I was taken once, and it did change me forever.
At around 11:30 AM, security forces spread in a nearby street and started shooting in the air for a couple of minutes. I received many stories as to why they were doing so at the time, but none made sense to me.
Electricity was off most of the day, but the good news is that after months of waiting and hours of standing in line we finally got 200 litres of heating diesel at a fair price. It won’t last long but 200 litres is 200 times better than nothing, and nothing is what thousands of Syrians are getting these days.
Again, we barely got power.
I was in line to get bread at exactly 4:55 AM, and I was home with some bread at 8:05 AM.
When I arrived home, power had been out for almost an hour. At 8:30, every window in my house was shaking and a very scary sound was all over the city. A maniac fighter jet pilot was raiding at many areas and he was flying low. The sound was horrible and it caused glass windows to shatter in many areas in Homs. The jet kept coming and going and shooting. For the first time ever I was able to see the shots coming down from the sky, but they were too fast so I couldn’t even try to take my Smartphone out of my pocket to film that.
By 9:15 AM the jet was gone, but that’s when shelling started.
We had power back but it was gone once again at 10 AM and it stayed out till 3:10 PM.
3:45 PM: Shelling is back.
3:55: Electricity is gone again till 5 PM then again between 8 and 9 PM.
No power, no internet connection, no cellphone coverage, no land line calls outside the city, no water, and no human rights.
November 30: As November 29.
We still don’t have a clear schedule to show us when we’ll lose electricity, and that’s very annoying. After it was on and off a couple of times, we lost it for five hours between 1 and 6 PM, then between 9 and 11 PM.
I went to an internet café around noon, and minutes later, I heard an explosion. It wasn’t the same sound we get from shelling or sniping. This one was different as the door of the place nearly broke. I went out to see what happened and that’s when I heard that a bomb went off near Java Café. I walked there as I was only few blocks away, and I saw the smoke coming out of the street where the Omar Mosque is.
Many ambulances rushed to the area quickly and picked many bodies and injured people.
Smoke kept coming till after 1 PM, and I saw the destruction there. Nearby buildings were badly affected and many cars were destroyed, but that’s all not important since 15 died in that explosion.
It turned out to be a car-bomb. The first car-bomb in this area, and possibly only the second one in Homs ever.
I thought about it. I know that area very well as I pass it almost every day and I know that no car can get in without being checked by at least two security check points. The FSA has never been in that area and I know that it’s impossible to smuggle a bomb or even a rifle unless Assad’s security forces want you to in that area. The car was parked in front of the mosque door and not near any security barrier or check point. It was obvious whoever put the car there wanted to kill people coming out of the mosque or those passing by it and not security forces members. I know for sure that the regime was behind that car-bomb.
An anti-Assad peaceful demonstration spontaneously started minutes after the ambulances took the injured and left the street, and another, bigger one, went on that street the same night. I am humbled by the people of my city, and I am filled with love and hope.
So in the past few days my house and many others were broken into by Assad’s forces, me and many young men were dragged at gunpoint from our beds for no reason, questioned and checked, and many were taken, then an Assad forces’ pilot drove the city crazy with his low flying and random attacks, and now a car-bomb near a mosque in an area that has absolutely no FSA and has been controlled by Assad’s forces for a very long time. Electricity barely comes, and communications as well. Things are changing here fast.
The martyrs were taken to the cemetery to be buried in an unforgettable funeral, and then after that most of the city saw a strike, especially in the Waar area, which is the most populated neighborhood in Homs after it accepted many refugees from the areas that have been and are being destroyed by the regime’s daily shelling. The strike lasted three days.
I took a look at the exchange prices on the black market in Damascus and found out that the Syrian pound is dropping very quickly.
November 2: US$1 = 86.70 SYP. November 3: US$1 = 88 SYP. November 4: US$1 = 91 SYP. Knowing that US$1 was worth around 47 SYP back in early 2011. As I said, things are changing fast.
We had a quiet morning, and that made left us glad since we’re always afraid after what happened in Hamra a few days ago, but then came a phone call that changed our positive mood to sadness. My mom broke down in tears and she couldn’t speak for a few seconds, then she told us about a new car bomb that hit Inshaat this time, and once again, near a mosque (Quibaa). We immediately called our relatives in that area and they confirmed what happened and told us that they were okay. Then they told us how their house was badly affected by the explosion, and that their daughter was injured while she was asleep in her bed when the window above her – made of glass and aluminum – broke and fell on her when the bomb went off.
Some people were injured in that explosion and many houses had their windows destroyed and much more depending on how close to the street in which the bomb exploded they were.
After checking on her again, I received some information — mostly online — that the explosion was actually a mortar shell that hit that street, but the people I know in that area kept saying it was a car bomb and said that they saw the car being towed afterwards. What I’m sure about is that many innocent civilians were affected by this once again, and that if it was a car bomb then I’m absolutely positive that the regime was behind it as every street leading to Inshaat is being guarded by high numbers of security forces and check points in which they have been searching every vehicle since last February when Assad’s forces went into Inshaat and invaded the houses there. I wrote about what happened there months ago, and I’ve been to Inshaat many times and I was checked by the security every single time. In fact, Inshaat has some of the worst security forces in Homs, and everyone in Homs knows how bad they are, not bad at their jobs, but bad at treating civilians properly and making everyone afraid of passing those streets.
You couldn’t smuggle a hand gun inside, now imagine a car filled with explosives. Just like I said about the last car bomb, it was allowed to get inside by the regime, and the fact that it targeted a mosque once again and not any security forces members were around proves my belief.
My mom kept getting phone calls and was crying that day, and one of those calls was from our relatives in Damascus, in the Mazzeh area, and they said they’ve been hearing rapid gunshots and explosions all morning.
Jets were roaming the skies over Homs all morning and news of random attacks came in every now and then. Some people talked about an air strike that accidentally hit a pro-Assad area and that some civilians there were killed by the people they support.
More civilians fall by the hands of this regime, and the fact that those were supporters of the government doesn’t make the crime any less inhuman.
Around my area, we could hear gunfire and explosions caused by shelling happening not far away till night, but that’s not unusual as the shelling and shooting never stop.
I was not home when the sound of a loud explosion shook my neighborhood and when people ran to see what happened. It was over when I came back and my family didn’t know what exactly happened, but whatever it was no one was hurt, I was assured by many.
Ambulances were all over the city since the morning and we heard unconfirmed news about explosions in various areas. People are always scared now after the past two explosions in areas that the regime has complete control of. Everyone’s talking about the “next car bomb” and which mosque it will target.
The bread crises have turn real for all areas in Homs, even the ones with working bakeries and supermarkets. Prices have gone up fast and suddenly there was no bread in any store. People panicked and bought all the bread they could fin,d no matter how expensive it was. Flour prices jumped high as well.
I personally couldn’t find bread at any price, and I was offered to sign up for bread for the next day at double the price. I didn’t.
I woke up at 4 AM, was out at around 4:30, headed straight to the bakery and found more than 25 people already in line before me. The weather was freezing cold but it didn’t matter since we needed bread.
I stood in line for hours and at 9:15 AM my turn came and I bought 50SYP worth of bread and I was home by 9:30.
In those five hours I saw things I wish I didn’t see. I saw children freezing for a loaf of bread. I saw a woman crying and yelling “I NEED BREAD! MY CHILDREN ARE HUNGRY” and trying to cut the line to get bread faster. I saw men arguing and pushing each other so no one could cut the line and take someone else’s turn. I saw a very old man who could barely walk or hear anything drop his bread in the mud after he waited hours to get them, and I saw him picking them up and cleaning them with a Kleenex because he simply couldn’t afford to throw those loafs away. I saw security forces and military people cutting the line and getting double the allowed amount of bread for us in a few minutes and not caring about the hundreds waiting for their turn, even after some shouted things like “This isn’t fair” and “You’re unjust” to the bakery workers.
After hours of waiting, I finally got my precious bread that could only last three days, and those behind me actually congratulated me on getting the bread. They laughed and joke about that I should invite them for breakfast since I’m the one with the bread. I replied with “Your turn will come when you hold some bread in your own hands, and you’ll feel as good as I feel now”. What a sad joke.
I got home and went to bed, and that’s when I realised that my backache was back. The pain was so bad I couldn’t move for some time, even though I knew that there will be cheap cooking gas tanks being sold today and that I should go stand in line again to get one, and we need the gas, but I couldn’t go.
A single thought occupied my mind that day and I couldn’t get over it: How pathetic our lives have been, and still are, under this regime?
When I was in line, I heard older people talking about being in the same position years ago, back when Hafez al-Assad was in charge and the country saw a very dark few years, financially speaking.
They were comparing Hafez and Bashar, and the similarities in our lives were too much to list. “Like father like son” is what I kept hearing over and over again.
One positive thing about this experience is how people were talking freely and out loud about everything. We could never even imagine that happening before March 15, 2011. No one can take that away again. No one.
The bead crises continue, and the lines in front of the bakeries are getting longer. I have never seen so many people in line before, not even in videos.
I decided not to stand there since I was still suffering from a bad back, and instead I went to the market to buy food and supplies, and that’s when I noticed that the crises isn’t just about bread, but everything. The market was almost empty, supermarket shelves barely had anything, and I couldn’t find most of what I wanted. I also saw how prices kept going up quickly. I remember buying almost everything at half the price only few months ago.
As I was putting my merchandise in the car’s trunk, a refugee woman came along begging for money, I gave her some, then she looked at what I was putting in the car, and the look of her face was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I felt guilty for being able to buy stuff when she couldn’t. I wanted to give her something but I couldn’t since I really suffered until I got what I got and my family needed them. I wish I could help. I wish I had a billion dollars to spend on those good, poor people.
I needed to stay in line for six whole hours to get bread, but I couldn’t due to my backache. I only got 15SYP pounds worth of bread and I had to go out from 5 to 6 in the morning. One hour is much easier than six.
In the afternoon, I went shopping and I found canned food that has a clear label saying that these cans aren’t for sale but a part of a World Food Program. I think some people are stealing aids instead of giving them to refugees and selling them to whoever needs to. I took some photos, but I can’t be 100 per cent sure.
Big Al Brand is a blogger and activist from Homs.
date : 16/12/2012